Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Books by Mexican writers to take you out of your comfort zone

Latin American literature is booming with women writers who are exploring exciting and innovative ways of telling stories. 

In 2020, The New York Times highlighted “The Adventures of China Iron” by Argentine writer and activist Gabriela Cabezón Cámara as one of the best Ibero-American fiction books of the year, a work that made her a finalist for the International Booker Prize. 

One year prior, author Valeria Luiselli was the first writer from Mexico and the fifth woman ever to win the Dublin Literary Award for her book “Lost Children Archive.”  The Guadalajara International Book Fair, the largest book fair in the Americas, has awarded the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz prize to Latin American storytellers for the past five years straight. 

Accordingly, most of the books listed below were written by women, as it is an open secret within the literary world that women are the ones leading contemporary Latin American literature today. 

Fernanda Melchor, “Hurricane Season,” translated by Sophia Hughes

(4 Goodreads stars)

The Witch is a woman who hosts parties at her isolated home, helping the women of the town when they need abortions – always refusing their money when they try to pay her. When she dies, the town enters a storm of darkness.

Melchor’s novel is raw and overwhelming with emotions. The story is separated into eight long monologues where the characters recount their stories of rage, violence, madness, suffering, abuse, fear and death. “Hurricane Season” takes place in a world where real violence seeps into the soil, poisoning everything around.

A reader wrote on Goodreads: “That was so far removed from my comfort zone, I now need to watch the Disney channel for a month.”

Yuri Herrera, “Signs Preceding the End of the World,” translated by Lisa Dillman

(3.9 Goodreads stars)

Francisco Goldman has called Yuri Herrera “Mexico’s greatest novelist.” In this book, Herrera has written a lyric novel: the story of Makina, a young Mexican woman who crosses the United States border hoping to find her brother – and to deliver a package from the Mexican underworld. It is a surrealist, strange tale that interrogates issues of immigration, language and translation. The book is fast and will leave you feeling thoughtful and slightly unsettled.

The book must have been a difficult challenge for the translator, so much so that she felt she had to explain some of her word choices in an afterword. Herrera uses a mixture of slang and allusive poetic descriptions and often uses words in strange new ways. As a result, Lisa Dillman’s choice of English words often seem very odd.

Jazmina Barrera, “On Lighthouses,” translated by Christina McSweeney

(3.8 Goodreads stars)

This memoir-of-sorts consists of six chapters, all centered around a different lighthouse – the oceanfront towers the author has visited, researched, read about and pondered. Barrera expresses her love for, or “collection,” of lighthouses using personal anecdotes, history and quotes from other books featuring lighthouses. 

Barrera visits the Montauk Lighthouse, talks to the children of lighthouse keepers and analyzes literary works by Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe. What do lighthouses stand for in history and our collective consciousness? Barrera creates a thoughtful, reflective melding of memoir, history, travel writing and literary inquiry, linking her reflections to her fears, her experiences living in a city and the way she looks for a guide in the form of a lighthouse.

Laia Jufresa, “Umami,” translated by Sophia Hughes

(3.7 Goodreads stars)

“Umami” is one of my favorite novels of all time – a multi-voice story about grief, loss and missed opportunities told by the people living in the same building in Mexico City. This story takes place in a middle-class Mexican neighborhood and unfolds via the interactions of its inhabitants after tragedy strikes. Jufresa’s writing forces you to pay attention; voices and timelines change without any warning, so you must be present to fully enjoy the literary treat that is “Umami.” 

Cristina Rivera Garza, “The Iliac Crest,” translated by Sarah Booker

(3.6 Goodreads stars)

Cristina Rivera Garza is a Mexican journalist who writes about injustice, gender violence and forced disappearance. 

“The Iliac Crest” is a short poetic novel about the disappearance of several women over many years. On a stormy night, two mysterious women invade the narrator’s house, where they proceed to question their host’s gender and identity ruthlessly, both refusing to leave the narrator’s house. Here, Rivera Garza plays with gender fluidity and identity. It is sure to spark a lot of thought.

Valeria Luiselli, “Faces in the Crowd,” translated by Christina MacSweeney

(3.5 Goodreads stars)

Like most of Luiselli’s work, this novel is a study in fragmentary feeling. In Mexico City, a woman writes a book about her life as a translator in New York. In Philadelphia, Gilberto Owen recalls his friendship with the Spanish poet García Lorca and the young woman he saw in the windows of passing trains. In Harlem, a translator is desperate to publish the works of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet. 

“Faces in the Crowd” is a book of overlapping fictions and timelines; a story of a woman who, while translating others’ stories, may also be telling her own. Valeria Luiselli speaks to the nature of reality, identity, memories and time in this book. 

Camila Sánchez Bolaño is a journalist, feminist, bookseller, lecturer, and cultural promoter and is Editor in Chief of Newsweek en Español magazine.

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